Tweet in haste, repent at leisure: A lesson for Paris Brown

The digital  generation is growing up online and, as Paris Brown discovered to her cost, the compromising posts we make in our youth can easily derail a career

If waking up to find your old tweets dredged up and splashed on the front page of a Sunday newspaper wasn’t enough of a rude awakening for Paris Brown, the ordeal had only just begun. The teenager dutifully appointed as Britain’s first Youth Police and Crime Commissioner was hauled in front of TV cameras to explain references made as young as 14 in which she condoned drug use and referred to “pikeys” and “fags”. By this afternoon she had resigned.

Explaining her reason for writing the tweets, she originally said: “It’s an age thing. Older generations haven’t grown up with Twitter and social media. For young people it’s different. You don’t want to bother people with your problems. You just think, I’m annoyed, Tweet!”

It was, in fact, a shrewd observation. And in recent days the teenager has become the poster girl of a generation that is growing up in uncharted digital waters where past transgressions are resurfacing to people later in life. Kent PCC Ann Barnes said that her apprentice, who was selected from more than 160 candidates has been forced to “grow up” and “learn very quickly”.

She is not the only one. Labour frontbencher Chuka Umunna, 34, was recently forced into an apology after past online musings caught up with him. Messages written under a pseudonym described London’s West End as “full of trash and class-C wannabes”. It might have been an honest impression of London nightlife five years ago; but it wasn’t a turn of phrase a young MP with ambitions of higher office would want to be readily associated with now. As if that wasn’t enough, it was later alleged that Mr Umunna or a member of his staff tinkered with his own Wikipedia entry to allegedly compare his political prowess to Barack Obama.

Experts warn that, for the generation behind Mr Umunna, there are more dangerous risks ahead.

“We’re about to have our attitudes truly tested,” warns Katy Howell of social media agency Immediate Future. “If you think the odd racist tweet is bad, wait until the 14-year-olds that are compromising themselves on Tumblr become famous or assume boardroom positions in 15 years from now. There’ll be far more uncomfortable revelations and careers, and even people’s lives, risk being derailed.”

It comes amid much fear over the way social media is used. “Even before they make it into high-profile positions people need to start consciously deciding why and how they plan to use a social network,” says Prashant Yadave, of the agency Karmarama.

The EU is currently moving to legislate for data to be eradicated from companies in what is billed as “the right to be forgotten”. Britain has hitherto opposed the moves, with the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling believing it to create legal difficulties due to the virtual impossibility of fully removing all data from the internet.

Businesses, too, fear it could wreck what is now one of their most effective way to reach customers, with digital adspend worth more than £6.5bn last year according to figures out today. Social media is the latest marketing weapon, with spending in the past three years increasing almost four-fold to £328m.

But would any of this legislation have helped Paris Brown? Unlikely, says Jim Killock, head of the Open Rights Group, which campaigns for privacy and consumer rights online. “It may be that she could have asked for the account to be deleted in full but it wouldn’t remove the historic record of what she said, which might well remain in other caches on other sites or in other places.”

Which gets to the nub of the issue: even with the greatest diligence, there is no guarantee that your internet track history can be entirely erased. In which case, should the Kent Police Commissioner have made the hiring at all? PCC Barnes told The Independent that there was no vetting of Ms Brown’s social media background. “She was subject to national vetting procedures but these do not currently include social media. But neither would it for any party elected official. This could, in that sense, be a landmark case.”

Mr Killock adds: “If someone says something in public, people need to know it comes with certain responsibilities. If you don’t have the opportunity to delete the data, that is in the hands of a third party and it is this that takes us into a potentially dangerous and unpredictable new world.”

Blue State Digital is the social media agency behind Barack Obama’s two successful election campaigns. With thousands of volunteers – aides and party members working on behalf of the President – the agency adopted various levels of vetting of members that started on blind trust and continued the closer one came to Mr Obama.

Rob Blackie, the agency’s European managing director, said it reprimanded the few people who breached the code, and in some cases, dismissed them. He adds: “We used to have a society that clearly defined public and private domain. No longer – social media and real life is overlapping and I think ultimately the world will move in a more mature direction to accommodate for the differences.”

For now though, Mr Blackie says the safest way is to assume everything you write is public and likely to return to haunt you just as it has for a growing catalogue of victims. “As egocentric as it may seen now, there is nothing to stop anyone falling out with you and then leaking all your information to a newspaper should ever become even mildly famous.”

Online defence: Sites to clean up your profile

Socialsafe

The tool allows you to view all social media timelines simultaneously and in chronological order. This helps to keep tabs on your wider digital footprint and act accordingly. (socialsafe.net)

SimpleWash

Scans your Facebook and Twitter profile; pinpointing suspect words that might reflect badly on the world. Also untags you from potentially incriminating photographs. (simplewa.sh)

My permissions

Displays all third parties to which you have granted third-party access to your Facebook or Twitter accounts. Makes it easier to view permissions and modify accordingly. (mypermissions.org)

Tweet Eraser

Deletes 350 Tweets an hour sorted by keyword or hashtag. Far faster than deleting each Tweet manually. (tweeteraser.com)

Qnary

Shows your precise “digital footprint” in terms of where your entries are linking; how you’re “perceived” online and the company you hold. (qnary.com)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power